ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. — Chris Kirk knew he was doing enough right Sunday at Sea Island to win a tournament that means so much to him. He just didn’t realize it would take something that went so wrong for Briny Baird.
Tied for the lead in the McGladrey Classic, Kirk was on the other side of the 18th fairway trying to envision an approach that would cover the flag and set up a birdie chance for the win. Those plans changed when Baird, with the ball below his feet in a fairway bunker, topped a 4-iron and watched his ball roll 90 yards and into a hazard.
Kirk played for par, closed with a 4-under 66 for a one-shot victory, and became the first player from Sea Island to win the McGladrey Classic — even if the 28-year-old moved to Atlanta a few months ago after six years in this tiny slice of paradise.
He received the trophy from tournament host Davis Love III, his hero when he first took the game seriously.
“To come here to Sea Island, which is a place that I love and cherish so much, and Davis’s tournament, it just an unbelievable thing,” Kirk said. “Davis was kind of my guy when I was 12 and 13, really starting to play golf. He was my favorite player, and he’s turned from being my idol to sort of a mentor and good friend. So I’m a very lucky person to be in that situation, and to win his tournament really means a lot to me.”
The victory sends Kirk to the Masters for the first time, a tournament that means even more.
His joy was tempered slightly by the way the tournament finished.
“It hurt to do what I did on the last hole,” Baird said.
Baird is now 0-for-365 in his PGA Tour career, and it looked for the longest time that he finally would win. Baird went from a two-shot deficit to a one-shot lead in two holes on the back nine, and he was on the verge of seizing control on the par-5 15th.
Baird hit his approach to 40 feet for a chance at eagle. Kirk was between clubs and pulled his hybrid into the water left of the green, and then he slammed his wedge into the turf when he chipped weakly, leaving him a long putt for par. It looked as if Baird would lead by two shots, maybe three, with three holes to play.
Instead, he ran his eagle putt 4 feet by the cup and three-putted for par, and Kirk holed his 20-foot par putt to stay only one shot behind.
“That kept me in it,” Kirk said.
He caught Baird with a 15-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole, setting up one last surprise on a back nine filled with them.
Tim Clark closed with a 62 and was on the practice range, holding out slim hope for a playoff if Kirk and Baird made bogey on the 18th. Only one of them faltered, and it was shocking. Baird had a tough lie in the sand, and he felt his left foot slip. Even so, he felt he should have been able to pull off the shot. It wasn’t even close.
Baird struggled with his swing most of the day, and he told his caddie he didn’t feel comfortable with it going down the 18th.
“You mix that with nerves, and it’s a recipe for disaster,” Baird said.
Kirk finished at 14-under 266, and his last tournament of 2013 came with plenty of perks — the biggest a trip to Augusta National, which he only has played when Georgia alumni used to invited the golf team over once a year.
He also gets into the Tournament of Champions at Kapalua to start 2014.
And his parents get a new photo for their mantle. The one they have is from a decade ago, when Kirk finished his sophomore year in high school and played in the Canon Cup north of Chicago. It was the first time he met Love, and his parents still have a photo of their son with sideburns and braces.
“It’s a pretty funny picture now,” Kirk said.
Now he can give them a photo of Kirk and Love posing with the trophy on the 18th green of the Seaside course at Sea Island, where Kirk had lived for the last six years until moving back to Atlanta because his wife is due next month with their second child. He still has his home at Sea Island, and it felt like the home with a large gallery waiting for him around the 18th green.
It was the first time Kirk could recall such a large gallery cheering for him.
If there was any consolation for Baird, it was money, of all things. The 41-year-old from Miami has said for years that he would rather have a season full of strong finishes that gets him into the Tour Championship than one win and nothing else. Even this week, he said tournament golf is as much about money than trophies.
He earned $484,000 for his tie for second, and the 25-foot bogey putt was worth $220,000. Baird was playing this year on a major medical extension from having surgery on both shoulders in 2012, and the money he earned Sunday was enough for him to keep his card for the rest of the season.
It was a small consolation.
“It’s not all about winning,” Baird said Sunday. “I’ve said that, but this hurts. This really does. This is very disappointing.”
Divots: This was the sixth time Baird has been runner-up. He has gone the longest without winning among players who have their PGA Tour cards. … All four tournaments since the McGladrey Classic began in 2010 have been decided by no more than one shot. … The fall portion of the PGA Tour season ends next week in Mexico.